Skip to content

Obama to U.N.: World is at a crossroads


President Barack Obama took his call for world cooperation against terror, climate change, Ebola and a host of other issues to the United Nations Wednesday, saying the world stands at a crossroads “between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope.”

His address came amid numerous international crises in which the United States finds itself at the forefront, including the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, lingering tensions in Ukraine and the spread of Ebola in Africa, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said could infect as many as 1.4 million people by early next year.

But, Obama said, the United States cannot do it alone.

He said many of the world’s problems are the result of “the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world” and urged greater adherence to international norms and more cooperation in the fight against extremism. And he said world leaders must decide on two defining issues: “Whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the U.N.’s founding, and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.”

Fight in Iraq and Syria

The meat of Obama’s speech focused on terrorism. He described “the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world,” as the “one issue” that threatens the world’s progress.

More specifically, Obama discussed the threat posed by and plan for dealing with ISIS, which calls itself the “Islamic State.” Obama highlighted three prongs of the plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group.

“We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL,” he said, using the administration’s preferred moniker for the terrorist group. “We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort. Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can.”

These are the three actions frequently addressed by Obama and his administration as steps that are necessary to “take the fight” to ISIS, but the forceful language was notable.

Obama reiterated in his speech that U.S. boots on the ground will not be part of this fight.

The president also addressed the philosophical aspect of the war against these terrorist groups, calling on the world, “especially Muslim communities,” to “reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL” and specifically noting that the United States “ is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

Obama did not specifically mention the Khorasan group—the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that the administration has also targeted in airstrikes in the country—in his speech, only referencing ISIS and al Qaeda.

Obama also addressed a variety of other international crises currently facing the global community.

Ukraine: Russia’s involvement in Ukraine represents “a vision of the world in which might makes right—a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed,” Obama said, referring to efforts to recover the remains of victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in July.

If Russia rolls back its involvement, the United States “will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges,” Obama said.

Ebola: While the United States is sending medical workers and the military to build treatment centers in Africa, the president called for a “broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders.”

Iran’s nuclear program: Obama urged Iranian leaders to work with the United States and others to resolve Western concerns over the country’s nuclear program. “We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful,” he said.

Global poverty: “We will do our part—to help people feed themselves; power their economies; and care for their sick,” he said. “If the world acts together, we can make sure that all of our children can enjoy lives of opportunity and dignity.”

Climate change: The United States will work on the issue within its own borders, but “we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power,” Obama said. “That’s how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren.”

America’s role

Obama pledge that America will remain engaged in the Middle East for some time, acknowledging that in Syria specifically, a diplomatic solution to the unrest there will take some time.

“The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed. Cynics may argue that such an outcome can never come to pass. But there is no other way for this madness to end, whether one year from now or 10,” he said. “I can promise you America will remain engaged in the region, and we are prepared to engage in that effort.”

He also spoke more broadly about America’s responsibility to “secure” a “legacy of freedom.”

“I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done,” he said towards the end of his speech. “We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come.”

Security Council meeting

Later Wednesday, Obama was scheduled to lead a special session of the U.N. Security Council focused on ISIS, which has seized portions of Syria and Iraq, prompting the United States and now some other nations to launch airstrikes against it.

The council is expected to consider a resolution requiring U.N. member states to take steps to make it more difficult for people to travel overseas to join ISIS, a growing problem for some European countries, particularly.

CNN’s Elise Labott contributed to this report.